Pentecost 18B: Friendship, Peace, and Social Distancing

The readings for this 18th Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29

Psalm                    Psalm 19:7–14

New Testament     James 5:13–20

Gospel                   Mark 9:38–50

Are not the biggest twin challenges of this time the social distancing of the pandemic and the social distancing caused by so-called social media?

And is it not so that the most promising strategy for navigating these troubled waters is reviving the neglected gift of friendship?

I want to focus on our Gospel reading for this week, and especially on Jesus’ charge to “be at peace with one another.”

I see the entire last 20 verses of Mark 9 as related. First, Jesus discloses to his disciples the core strategy of his ministry. He will go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, killed, and then exalted by God. It is surely not the strategy of the messiah people usually long for, but it is God’s formula for releasing the power of the fullness of life.

But once again in Mark’s gospel, the disciples prove to be tone deaf. Instead of practicing self-emptying they argue about which of them is the greatest. Jesus challenges them saying, “If you aim to be fist of all you must live to be last and servant of all.”

Continuing to our reading for this Sunday, the disciples voice their resentment that someone not in their entourage is successfully curing people of demon possession. It doesn’t matter that people are being healed. The disciples are miffed that though they were first in line there are others muscling in on their territory—and doing it by crass imitation–using the formula of Jesus’ name. Jesus seizes on the irony saying if there are any two things that should unite people they are acts of loving-kindness and the name of Christ.

Continuing in our lesson Jesus speaks of “stumbling blocks.” The Greek verb this translates is “skandalizo.” It is related to our ideas of taking offense and being embarrassed. It is obvious in this entire sequence of episodes that the disciples are stumbling over Jesus’ call to self-sacrificing caring and service toward others. They don’t get it. They take offense at the notion that this is what religious faith amounts to. Faith should certainly be something more glorious, spiritual, and other-worldly. The disciples are embarrassed at such seeming weakness.

But Jesus says being scandalized by such a faith is worse than death itself. If any organ of your body would spark such offense in you, look out. It would be better for you to be anchored and thrown into the sea. In fact, I think Jesus is saying, “I you can’t accept the call to service of others you are taking the exit ramp from the road of life.”

The reason I associate the idea of friendship to all of this is that it is both the thing most fitted to our nature that opens us to sacrifice for and serve other human beings, and the thing most endangered in our age. The Greco-Roman moral philosophers were pretty united in seeing friendship as both the greatest gift of the gods as well as a skill or virtue to be cultivated. The key idea that comes up often in the writings of these thinkers is that virtue of friendship is the opposite of the vice of envy. Friendship is cooperation that revitalizes,while envy is competition that withers the soul.

The double whammy of social media and the social distancing we must endure because of the pandemic have sped up the decline of friendship that was already in well on its way since the 18th  century. With industrial division of labor shortening our interactions and social and physical mobility lengthening the distances that separate us, we lost grip on the millennia-old tradition of contemplating friendship. We stopped thinking and writing about it. Wound up with a funeral anthem for it by Carole King: “So far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore? It would be so fine to see your face at my door. Doesn’t help to know you’re so far away.”

Then came the anti-social effects of social media. With algorithms written to enhance profits by preferencing the most extreme, contentious, and divisive of content, we have pushed people further and further away from each other. Young people compare their bodies, dance skills, and wit with each other, and very often become hopelessly discouraged. Adults find themselves being sucked into the polar opposites of the political spectrum. All of us find ourselves in echo chambers and thought silos.

On top of these forces comes the pandemic.

In this time of social distancing and life on a lonely planet, it is more important than ever to cultivate friendship. We must learn to appreciate friendship as the opposite of envy and competition, the opposite of resentment and polarization, and the antidote to deadly division.

Don’t take offense at this. It is simple but not simplistic. They say don’t curse the darkness but light a candle. The way to do this in our lonely age is to find just one true friend, and then another. Find someone who shares your truth and your world, and who cares enough to get vaccinated. Pry yourself away from the counterfeit society of the virtual kind. Turn away from the screen, and spend time face to face and even arm in arm. Walk together. Enjoy music together. Stand shoulder to shoulder and feel the power of defying all of the doomsayers as you solve the world’s problems together. Don’t take offense and laugh at this notion—if you can see it, it will begin to happen because God is seeing it and loving it too. Learn that all of the fear and loathing stirred up by politicians and pundits is the real fantasy. Your connection with another human being is the truest thing in this world. You will find that altruism is not dead. Selflessness is not dead. Hope is not dead.

Oh, yes, the sting of salt and the pain of fire are still there. But they are good because they just make your friendships all the more precious and all the more powerful. It took a long time and a Resurrection for Jesus to teach the disciples this lesson, but the church is here because it finally sunk in.

And, as Jesus said, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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